A Flexible Sheaffer Snorkel: Future Past

The rare flexing Snorkel

The rare flexing Snorkel.

In the optimistic days of the 1950s a race developed to improve simple processes by throwing as much confusing gadgetry at them as possible. With flying cars and home based nuclear reactors around the corner consumers wanted a taste of that future now. Autos got “Hi-Way Hi-Fi” under dash record players, “Autronic Eye” headlight dimmers, and “Torsion-Aire” suspensions. Appliances self-cleaned, self-defrosted, and self-timed. It was only natural that fountain pen technology would embrace the space age as well.

Sheaffer’s Snorkel fountain pen is the premier example of fixing something that isn’t broken. The idea was that dunking the nib and section of a fountain pen into ink to fill it was messy (it was) and a terrible plague on humanity (which it wasn’t). The pen engineers at Sheaffer knew they could combat this terror and took their current stylishly svelte fountain pen called the TM (for “Thin Model”) added some length and a mess of internal parts until it became the famous Snorkel filler. That name was based not on recreational divers but the snorkel technology used by submarines to keep air flowing into diesel engines at shallow depths. In the case of the new pen, however, it didn’t keep liquid out but sucked some in. The procedure for filling it was a bit like using a Rube Goldberg contraption: You first twisted the blind cap at the back end to extend a long tube from under the nib. This tube went into the ink keeping the nib and section squeaky clean (and your fingers as well). The next step was to pull up the blind cap extending another larger tube backwards. Reversing this with a smart push down was the last step and caused high air pressure to collapse a rubber sac in the pen which was suddenly released when the tube traveled far enough to reach an air escape passage. With no more pressure in the barrel the sac expands and sucks up the ink, Q.E.D. It’s no surprise that with a filling system this blingy Snorkels became wildly popular and eventually were made at the Sheaffer plants in Canada, England, and Australia as well as domestically.

Despite the complexity Snorkels are well built pens that are usually problem free and enjoyable to use when restored. There was a myriad of colors and styles to select from and a large range of nib types. Overwhelmingly these pens show up with traditional open or conical Triumph nibs in fine and medium points even though more interesting alternatives were offered including flexibles and italics. That fact makes it all the more satisfying when you come across a unique Snorkel nib.

In order to hunt the rare and little seen nibs the following facts can be helpful: English and Australian built snorkels have a higher chance of having nibs with more flex. It is not true that a Triumph nib cannot be flexible, there were some flex versions made. Oblique italics and stub italic nibs came in all the nib styles and materials. Lastly, on some of the flexible nibs it looks like they were not finished on the normal production line due to some minor discrepancies. These nibs do not have a groove that usually marks the delineation point between the platinum plated front and the gold back possibly because that would be a weak point when flexed. Slightly sloppy masking at the edge of the platinum is also seen. Possibly handwork was needed to complete them due to the low number produced in comparison with the more popular nibs.

This snorkel can do thick and thin.

This snorkel can do thick and thin.

Sheaffer had a bewildering array of model names based on the style of nib, nib material, cap material, clip style, and guarantee so not every Snorkel is created equal. The example pen shown here is a Saratoga model with 14k Australian made flexible stub nib. Its shows a good amount of line variation in use due both to the flexibility and the shape of the tip. It always seems that the ink flow in pens from the era where flex was out of style is skimpy creating the “ink on,” “ink off” nightmare of skipping. In this pen I removed the thin hard rubber feed that runs the length of the snorkel tube and increased the depth of the channel in the center. Now the pen has a very good flow and writes quite wet.

So, hopefully this shows that Snorkels don’t have to be dull and stodgy. A good nib makes this a fun pen and the elaborate filling system will give you a different experience than found in one of those old timey fountain pens.